Below is a list of some of my favourite books and authors who I find consistently worthwhile. This list has been largely assembled from those books that I associate with my professional endeavours. When I am asked for book recommendations, more often than not the response is drawn from below. I will also endeavour to add books as they either occur to me as having been missed or are encountered anew.
- The Practice of Management. Peter F. Drucker (Collins, New York, 2006). Originally published in 1954, this book, like everything of Drucker's that I have read, continues to resonate with overwhelmingly penetrating good sense - of the type that seems to be almost timeless. When the vast majority of business books addressing management and leadership must be rated as unrelentingly insipid, Drucker remains a source of hope.
- The Social Life of Information. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (HBS Press, Boston, 2000).
I have found this book, as well as the numerous articles that they two have composed (jointly or separately), to be insightful and relevant. Particularly memorable from this particular book are some of the points about the sometimes surprisingly valid reasons why certain practices persist and will return even after the new broom has swept through.
- The Politics of Information Management. Paul A. Strassmann (The Information Economics Press, New Canaan, 1995). Along with his other books, Information Payoff and The Squandered Computer, I have always suspected that this book is much less well known than it should be and that this is largely because it cuts a little too close to the bone and stresses accountabilities that would make the people who are typically responsible for technology acquisition and exploitation distinctly uncomfortable.
- Managers Not MBAs. Henry Mintzberg (Berret-Koehler, San Francisco, 2004). There is a humanity and humour in Dr. Mintzberg's books that is quite engaging and, in an manner reminiscent of Drucker, a foundation of good sense is always present. In the light of the recurrent shocks running through the economy, some of his points about the need for embedded, emergent and responsible management seem more and more compelling.
- The Culture of Contentment. John Kenneth Galbraith (Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1992). Galbraith is another favourite of mine and this has been so ever since I was introduced to The Affluent Society in one of my undergraduate seminars. I have found his works to be immanently readable, thought-provoking and once again I find myself attracted to the good-natured wisdom and experience that seems to radiate from these pages. I understand that Galbraith's reputation amongst the inner circle of the dismal science is sometimes battered and for this reason alone he is probably worth ongoing attention. The Culture of Contentment was a book I found particularly prescient when it appeared amid the economic downturn and some of the social tensions that figured prominently in the early 1990s.
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Thomas S. Kuhn (University of Chicago Press, 1970, Second Edition). Another work that I was introduced to during my undergrad studies and that has resurfaced repeatedly ever since - memorably as a distant backdrop to the re-engineering craze of the early to mid-1990s when almost everything seemed to portend a "paradigm shift". Part of the durability of this book lies in the fact that, while individual facts or propositions may fall into dispute, the overall premise is difficult to sidestep. A short visit to a typical academic laboratory, or a commercial or government one for that matter, will re-affirm the fact that powerful interests rapidly accrue around any prevailing status quo.
- Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991). A short book that leaves quite an impression. It introduces the notion of communities of practice and does so in a way that immediately makes you look at organizations differently. It immediately accorded with my own inquiries into the emergence of certain professions in the 17th and 18th centuries. I have also found the subsequent works of Etienne to be useful in building better understanding of learning, organizations and identities.
- The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World. Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart (Penguin, Harmondsworth UK, 1994). Jack Cohen is a "reproductive biologist" and Ian Stewart is a mathematician and working together on a series of books they combine depth, clarity and a fair measure of humour when dealing with some relatively dense issues in science. The duo have written a couple of Science Fiction novels as well, Wheelers and Heaven, both of which spin stories out of the depths of scientific insights, or postulations, with this being very different than decorating a stock story with some futuristic details. Their other book, Figments of Reality, on the emergence of human consciousness, is also highly recommended.
- Managing the Professional Services Firm. David H. Maister (The Free Press, New York, 1993). This book was based on a fair amount of research conducted into how professional services firms, of various types, operated. Whereas many books that start out with a research basis and then descend into warrens of trivial observations, this book converted the research into useful information and valuable insights. I made heavy use of this book when forming an informatics consultancy and again with several customers.
- Decline and Fall of the American Programmer. Edward Yourdon (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs NJ, 1992). I remember distinctly reading this book shortly after it came out and finding it to be very compelling. This was partially because I had just moved onto a large software development project that seemed to embody many of the ills Yourdon was highlighting. The Rise and Resurrection of the American Programmer and Death March also merit attention, with these focusing on other dimensions of the informatics business.
- The Selfish Gene. Richard Dawkins (Oxford University Press, 1989 - originally published 1976). One of those books that plants a seed that introduces a different way of viewing both the biological and human worlds. For my purposes, it is the introduction of the idea of a Meme, as another type of replicator, that is most interesting. One of Dawkins's protégés, Susan Blackmore, has since provided further explorations with The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press, 1999).
- The Closing of the American Mind. Allan Bloom (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987). I read this book in 1989, just as I after I had concluded my graduate studies, and I found that it zeroed in on what struck me then, and still strikes me now, as some very valid points. While books about the various plagues afflicting higher education have become something of an industry, few if any touch upon why some of these challenges are genuinely important. This is precisely where this book seemed strong to me and there is no doubt that its rootedness in the humanities perspective partially explains its appeal to me. All that aside, this book managed to ignite in me a long-standing interest in how higher education can balance modern demands with traditional strengths to sustain and evolve an important presence in society.
- Neuromancer. William Gibson (Ace Books, New York, 1984). Although a large part of my reading is non-fiction, I have found the occasional diversion into fiction to be helpful. In the case of Gibson's novels, I was a late starter and I remember reading Neuromancer while sitting in an outdoor cafe in Paris in 1994. I also remember how I used the "imaginative landscape" as a corrective to the oppressive control that my colleagues on one software project thought would be a feasible approach. I also remember spotting a later novel, Idoru, in an airport bookstore and being absolutely thrilled that I would be able to read it on the next leg of my journey.
- Gulliver's Travels - Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships. Jonathan Swift (1726). I have heard it said that in order to be considered educated one must have read Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbes. I have also heard variations on this claim with different works being inserted. I would frame the statement with Gulliver's Travels as the posited masterpiece. I simply do not know of many works that have managed to mix a popular tale with so many levels of meaning and penetrating, if unsettling, foresights. For my money, as it were, Swift stands as the greatest satirist of them all and among the very foremost prose stylists in the English canon.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.